Esports remains the best vehicle to reach all K-12 students

The pandemic may have slowed a bit of the fervor, but interest in gaming, learning in schools is still soaring.
By: | February 18, 2022
The Port Washington-Saukville School District's Game Room during its junior varsity Overwatch and Smash Bros matches. (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Wojcik)

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered the landscape of esports in education—taking most gatherings virtual, at least early on—but the allure hasn’t subsided.

Dedicated educators, popup non-profits, leagues and embedded organizations have rallied to bring gaming and curricula into K-12 schools with the same mission: Give kids a chance to play and build future pathways. That is especially true for students who struggle to make connections with peers or get involved in other activities.

Those who are united in the cause say the challenges, especially for tired teachers and cost-conscious administrators, are immense. But they agree that the investment is worth it.

“It’s a challenging time. COVID has had its impact on the entire ecosystem and structure of education,” says Gerald Solomon, founder and executive director of the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF), the pioneer in offering academics through esports. “But the kids who engage in the data work, engage in the writing, they just shine. We’re seeing increased attendance in school. We’re seeing reengagement in the public educational system, especially when it’s wrapped in a very strategic and thoughtful educational, scholastic ecosystem.”

Despite the fallout from COVID-19 and a heavy switch to virtual (where it is native anyway), esports is still very strong. And they will take center stage again at the once-again-live Future of Education Technology Conference in Orlando from Jan. 25-28 with dozens of sessions.

Solomon said he is seeing growth in the U.S. and across the world through its many partnerships with international organizations. Two years ago, the High School Esports League (HSEL) had about 80,000 students participating. Now it has more than 140,000 and serves more than 3,400 schools.

Kristy Custer, Vice President of Educational Innovation at the HSEL and a former principal of the year in Kansas, says schools that haven’t climbed aboard yet should strongly consider it. “I’ll give you a list of 80 reasons why we should bring esports into school, but we immediately saw attendance jump and kids were so engaged. It was like a silver bullet. But if all this does is bring a little joy to kids and teachers, and a little laughter and joy to the classroom right now, that’s enough.”

Joy means better outcomes for students

The data back that up. According to Generation Esports, which runs the HSEL, attendance among students rises about 10% when kids are engaged through esports and their grade point averages jump about 1.7 points. But it’s the SEL piece, the career track connection and the ability of esports to provide unique access to all that make it a champion in schools.

Custer, who along with fellow former educator Michael Russell developed the Gaming Concepts curriculum that has been downloaded 400,000 times, noted that one high school educator told her that esports “normalizes the virtual playing field” and has become one of the top five activities at his school in just a year. Because of its reach and inclusivity, it brings in more unengaged students and gives them purpose academically because of the positive reinforcement provided in a structured environment. Esports reaches seemingly unreachable populations.

“You can come to the esports team and be whoever you want to be,” Custer says. “One of the most foundational things that we learned [from a research study done this fall of a big high school district] is that 7% of the students gaming were from the LGBTQ community. All nine top sports combined are only getting 9%. Esports is capturing a marginalized, high-risk community, and we are helping them belong to something. It crosses a lot of social-economic boundaries.”

What attracts students initially, of course, is the rush of playing. Aside from relevant paths that can open doors to careers in shoutcasting, digital arts and coding, there are huge opportunities for kids to game. A myriad of organizations offers everything from pay-to-play models to free challenges and popup events from NASEF such as Rube Goldberg, Minecraft and FarmCraft challenges. The HSEL and other platforms offer serious tournament play from Overwatch to NBA2K at the high school level and Rocket League and many other games for middle schoolers at per-semester and yearly costs to schools. Game developers are also trying to tailor new titles for younger kids.

Though monetary models have been criticized at K-12, semester and yearly fees at HSEL and MSEL aren’t too pricy ($1,500 and $750 per year, respectively), and schools have been tapping into ESSER funds to make that a reality. One deep consideration, of course, is the cost of equipment. Though schools can get a jumpstart with Nintendo Switches and consoles, the best environments have gaming PCs.

“The kid in Chicago, the kid in Wichita need access to high-quality gaming equipment,” Custer says. “You get those high-dollar PCs to spark that interest and lay that digital foundation for those kids so they say, this is fun. It is a huge equity and access piece. Some students are not playing on PCs. They’re asking for PlayStations and Xboxes, so they can play NBA2K. Why? Because they’re within the monetary range.”

Aligning gaming with education

Esports curricula vary from free to paid but are continually updated and provide a way for schools to deliver that key element that makes esports different from traditional sports—the learning element. For example, NASEF offers free English Language Arts Integrated Courses that align with content standards, career technical education and middle school modules that focus on translatable esports skills. HSEL, long known as a competition arm for esports in K-12, has made a huge commitment to add more education tie-ins, including the addition several years ago of Gaming Concepts along with the recent hiring of more than two dozen educators.

Gaming Concepts has gone from book to updated series and includes the introduction to esports (a primer for educators just getting started) as well as a technical piece on digital arts (Level 2 coming in fall 2022) that can be positioned as part of an interactive arts pathway. There is also 1.1, which focuses on “30 moments in mental health” that is being piloted among 1,600 students and includes concepts such as fighting toxicity, self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-regulation. A new Gaming Concepts 3.0 promises to be eligible for CTE funding.

The offerings from both organizations, and of course the heady work by independent teachers just simply doing it on their own, are helping students get to that level, not as gamers but taking that knowledge and earning scholarships to colleges and universities.

“The whole concept of gaming and esports by itself is a relatively closed environment, but when you wrap around social-emotional learning opportunities, curriculum, career pathway education and awareness, it is a whole new world,” Solomon says. “When you give a child an opportunity who doesn’t know that it exists, doesn’t see a future for themselves—‘I really love art. I can make a career in art around gaming that I love to do, and actually earn a living doing that’—or in a sundry of other workforce skill opportunities that are powerful. We continue to hear, especially around ELL individuals that say if it weren’t for our ability to communicate, be on teams exhibiting leadership, we would not be as proficient in communication and English without that.”


ESPORTS SESSIONS AT FUTURE OF EDUCATION TECHNOLOGY CONFERENCE 

(All are in Esports Theater unless noted; subject to change)

Wednesday, January 26

Thursday, January 27

Friday, January 28


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